Tuesday, 10 March 1998

Jean-Paul Sartre: Les Séquestrés d'Altona (1960)

Translation: As Altona, by Sylvia & George Leeson, 1960
Edition: Penguin, 1960

As with Sartre's other plays and novels, Altona deals with the practical outworkings of his philosophical ideas - the play reads almost like a thought experiment from, say, Being and Nothingness, but crucially missing the surrounding explanation. It is, however, not clear, at least to me, exactly what he is saying here.

The direct subject matter is also based around a theme common to much else written by Sartre: the reactions people had to the Second World War. It starts with a meeting of a rich German family following the announcement that the family's patriarch is dying. Some unpleasant facts about the family history are brought to light; the eldest son, Franz, thought to be dead since the war and the perpetrator of various crimes during his service, is revealed to be living hidden away in an upstairs room that he has not left for years. He refuses to see his father, whom he feels (with some justification) is responsible for his position. Remaining in his room, he has only a distorted picture of the outside world, which has been fabricated by his sister, Leni.

Once the story has been set up, the remainder of the play concerns the attempts of Franz's sister-in-law Joanna to get to know him, and Leni's attempts to prevent this. The whole situation is manipulated by the dying father to try to get Franz to see him, but when the meeting finally happens, it doesn't go as either of them anticipated it.

So what is the play about? The question of free-will and choice is clearly fairly important. How much choice did Franz have during the war? How much was he forced into committing his crimes by his father's manipulation and collaboration with the more unpleasant aspects of the Nazi regime, not to mention the way in which he was brought up. The way in which he has been imprisoned in one room and has been unable to get an accurate picture of the world outside no doubt has something to say about perception. But my overall impression was that the philosophical content was not clear enough to make a point, while the play read too much like a philosophy essay to succeed as a play.

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